Book review: The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia)

It will be a news flash to precisely no one that people are very good at trying to create the reality they desire.

It usually bears no resemblance to life as it actually is, and can be irritating at best and murderously destructive at worst, and in Inga Vesper’s The Long, Long Afternoon, set in 1959 where the lawns are perfectly manicured and suburban houses are a just-so shade of what’s in vogue, it has some deadly repercussions for a diverse group of people.

Chief among them is Joyce Haney, a typical perfectly out together housewife who is chafing under the strictures placed upon her by a loving but controlling husband, by a society that cares only about appearances and disregards anything below the surface (which should never be on display anyway) and by her own pact with the suburban devil which has seen her give up her true love, her art career and any chance at real happiness.

One afternoon, hence the title, which also refers to that awful gap between busy mornings and active evenings, Joyce simply disappears and the The Long, Long Afternoon becomes as much an exquisitely well-written murder mystery and as it does a gentle but brutally excoriating exposure of a broken society masquerading as a societal idyll.

It’s nothing of the kind of course and no number of beautiful dresses or up-to-the-minute appliances or immaculately laid out dinners can disguise that; or not for long, anyway.

“By the time he’s stuck in traffic near the half-finished bridge again, he has forgotten what he meant to figure out. He curses himself for being dippy as a school kid. Something wasn’t said in that battered house. Something reached for air and was drowned again before he could catch it.” (P. 161)

Caught up in the inevitable brouhaha over Joyce’s disappearance are an eclectic group of people, ranging from the expected, her husband Frank, a man wholly representative of his era who, while distraught over his missing wife, is out of touch with the realities of her day to day life to her neighbour Nancy (a widow) who seems overly invested in the fate of Frank and Joyce and their two daughters Barbara and Lily through to those like Ruby Wright, a Black woman who is the “help” for both the Haneys and Nancy and who finds herself judged at every turn with merciless cruelty ever time she steps from her home in South Central L.A. to the manufactured perfection of the suburb of Sunnylakes in Santa Monica.

Here Ruby, who is a bright young woman with aspirations to teach science, is treated as second-rate, too lacking in all the right attributes mainly lemon-faced , sclerotic Whiteness, to ever really amount to anything.

And yet it soon becomes apparent that Ruby is far more in touch with her humanity, far more intelligent and insightful and far more caring than anyone she comes into contact with, save for Joyce herself, who treats Ruby as the equal she of course is, and Mrs Crane, a forward-thinking resident on the edge of Sunnylakes who calls a spade, a spade and is happy to challenge the harsh ideals of a world that value conformity to the point of grinding cruelty.

The only person who realises this is white cop, Detective Mick Blanke, a man who has experienced more than his share of trials and tribulations and recognises someone of real value when he meets Ruby who becomes critical to solving Joyce’s disappearance because she arrived at the house so close to the disaffected housewife going missing and witnessed a series of odd events and disclosures, something without others realising she has done so.

Inga Vesper (image courtesy official author site)

AS a mystery, The Long, Long Afternoon is superlatively good.

It keeps you guessing on every page, building to the mother of all climaxes which reveals not only the truth of what has happened to Joyce but also the barebones reality of a world which bears no resemblance at all to its carefully groomed facade.

What most impresses about The Long, Long Afternoon, quite apart from it’s rich, fulsome characterisation and its incisive social commentary is that Vesper balances the mystery and social observation elements of the story to a profoundly involving and immersive degree.

Crafting an atmospheric sense of time and place that is both darkly oppressive and oddly hopeful – the existence of people like Ruby and Mick and Mrs Crane assures you that raw, honest, forward-thinking humanity may yet have a chance to change things – the novel is an intensely vibrant exploration of what happens when the facade of suburbna perfection cracks and the horrors of what actually lies beneath come crawling to the surface.

It’s not pretty and it’s a thousand shades of cruelly hypocritical and Vesper brings it alive with menacing intent and brooding hopelessness, with every page a master work in creating a world that is eating itself alive even if it doesn’t realise this is happening.

“Ruby watches her leave. She cannot move. Her entire body has gone number. Her lungs contract, each breath sending needle pricks of pain into her ribcage.

‘I’m going to head out for a bit,’ she says into Pa’s general direction. ‘See ya.'” (P. 299)

Ruby is, despite Joyce’s importance to and prominence in the narrative, the heart and soul of this brilliantly languorous but emotionally intense novel.

At every stage of The Long, Long Afternoon she is the one who knows what is really going on, what people are actually saying behind their weasel words and who know, through harsh experience, that life is really what it promises to be.

In South Central, that truth is on display every day of the year and Ruby and boyfriend Joseph have no choice but to make an accommodation with it – thankfully this doesn’t stop Ruby from dreaming of where life could take her – but in Sunnylakes her unflinching, unadorned perspective is a rarity which explains why she is able to cut through when so many others can’t.

She is the candle in the darkness, both in the world around her and in the unravelling of the mystery of Joyce’s sudden departure from a place that seemed like her natural home, but which wasn’t in the end (if at all) and it is around Ruby that everything in the gripping delight that is The Long, Long Afternoon revolves.

Vesper has gifted us a rare and perfect thing in The Long, Long Afternoon, a novel that holds a harsh and unflattering light up to the unflattering vagaries of human society, its revelations as telling now as they are in 1959, all while offering up a fantastically intriguing mystery that is as exciting as it is saddening and which reminds once again that we judge others at our peril lest we too find ourselves judged and dealt with accordingly.

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